Dance of the Bureaucrats 

Warning: This column contains elevated levels of mercury. A heavy dose of bureaucratese also is included, but it is toward the end, and if you read it aloud to your coworkers, they are likely to pee their pants.

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, our city utility, the one that you and I own, held a public meeting to talk about how Colorado Springs is going to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's new limit for acceptable levels of mercury in wastewater. You know, the yucky stuff that we send down Fountain Creek to Pueblo and beyond. What? You didn't know about the meeting? Well, that's because the public wasn't invited.

There is an incomprehensible explanation for that. But first, let's talk about mercury, toxic to the nervous system, particularly for developing fetuses and young children. The utility company tests wastewater for the poison four times a month. In November, the average reading for mercury was about 25 parts per trillion.

That amount does not exceed the current standard. But it is more than twice the 11 parts per trillion, per month, that soon will be the limit that we'll be able to legally send downstream to our southern neighbors. (Who, by the way, are quite pissed off over all the spilled sewage we also have been sending their way.)

If it sounds like scary stuff, well, it is. However, the suits upstairs don't cozy up to media reports about, say, arsenic in our drinking water, or mercury in our wastewater. (As utility spokesperson Patrice Quintero says, "We don't want to put fear into the heart of the community.")

And so they have developed a highly creative tap-dancing technique. Let's call it the Dance of the Bureaucrats.

For their meeting this week, utility execs identified a couple hundred "stakeholders" (trust me, they really like this word) to gather and talk about their snappily named "Mercury Reduction and Prevention Policy and Procedure Program" to figure out ways to fix the problem. Such "stakeholders" included dentists, medical lab folks, taxidermists, potters and other people who might be illegally disposing poison into the wastewater. Also invited were other identified parties of interest, like the Recycling Coalition of Colorado Springs and the Sierra Club.

The general public and the media --who usually appreciate a heads-up -- were not notified. But, Quintero assures, this eventually will occur as part of an ongoing "tiered education program."

In the next month or so, she says, the utility will include information about the program to customers via its monthly newsletter, which we all eagerly anticipate, right along with our utility bill.

Gary Rapp of the local Recycling Coalition isn't buying. Earlier this week, Rapp underscored his disappointment over the utility's failure to notify or engage the public. "Two things are necessary for a public meeting," he noted. "One, that the meeting should be open to the public and two, that the public knows about it."

CSU apparently sticks to another standard.

Lisa Mills, who works in some sort of sphere called the "Issues Management Department," responded to Rapp, defending the utility company's "award-winning" process of "engaging the public." Here are some snippets:

"Please understand there are more than sixty-seven techniques for engaging the public in participation. Public meetings are just one example. The process we follow for analyzing the most appropriate techniques is performed through two processes, Systematic Development of Informed Consent and Citizen Participation by Objectives."

Mills also wrote this:

"I want to reiterate that we follow a thorough process when determining public participation techniques that invites the most effective and reliable public participation, not necessarily the most broad. Our process adheres to best management practices and has received numerous awards for rigorous analysis and comprehensive results."

And she wrote this:

"We are very passionate about engaging the public, it is one of our measures on our Corporate Scorecard ... "

For all you "stakeholders" needing a translation, this is the best we can do: Mumbo jumbo. Mumbo jumbo. Mumbo jumbo.

-- degette@csindy.com


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